In earlier posts, I have written about what neuroplasticity is (the ability of the brain to rewire and change) and why it is important for eating disorder recovery. Therefore, if you want to know more about neuroplasticity generally, have a read of my last post on the topic (here). In this post, I want to cover 10 tips that can really help to aid the rewiring process in your eating disorder recovery… 10 things that will make your brain more likely to adapt and change.
I have written an entire separate post about how and why using positivity in recovery (even when you are not feeling particularly positive) is so important because it helps the brain create stronger neural connections (between your brain cells), if it perceives the new behaviours to feel good. Find the positivity wherever you can in recovery so your brain really understands why the new behaviours and thought patterns you are introducing it to are a good thing and worth remembering!
2. Sleep (or Deep Rest)
Many don’t realise but it is actually during sleep or deep rest that the physical restructuring work really happens in your brain. You might think you are sleeping and nothing much is happening in there, but that sleep is the time your brain is working hard!
When you are awake and taking on new behaviours for recovery that you want to ‘wire in’, the brain cells involved in the new behaviours are ‘marked’ by certain brain chemicals but the actual physical wiring (formation of bonds between the relevant brain cells) doesn’t happen until you sleep or rest. Learning new things (as you have to in recovery) requires sleep between those episodes of ‘learning’. Ever wondered why kids need much more sleep than adults? They are learning a huge number of new things all the time, so their brains need the additional sleep for all the restructuring it needs to do to hold onto the new information it is being given.
It is also worth noting here that during sleep, the brain also ‘loses’ all the things that happen in our day that it decides it does not need to store in longer term memory. This is another reason why point one is so important… the brain needs to understand why it should hold onto the recovery positive ‘learning’ you have been embarking on each day, so that it does not decide to ‘weed’ it out during your sleep instead!
Get as much sleep and deep rest as you can in recovery – your brain needs it to rewire, just as much as your body needs it to restore.
3. Less Stress!
Stress, particularly chronic stress (and anyone who has an eating disorder will be living under some significant degree of chronic stress) does affect how our brains structure and function. One study on rats found that those who were put under chronic stress had significant changes to the area of their brain that is responsible for decision making and goal directed behaviours. The more stress a person is under, the narrower their attention becomes, they are less able to take in new information and much less flexible in difficult situations.
The more stressed you are during your recovery, the less able you will be to focus on recovery action and you will be much less flexible in being able to process your options in a recovery based situation.
Chronic stress has also been found to cause significant shrinkage in the hippocampus of the brain, which is the area responsible for processing and storing memories. When you are in recovery and need your brain to process all the new recovery ‘learning’ you are asking of it, it is important that your brain has the ability to store these recovery based memories.
Therefore, you need to make space in your life for recovery and reduce any stress in your life that is not absolutely essential (the stress of recovery is the essential part!). Make space in your brain for the changes you need and want to happen or else your brain will struggle to absorb anything.
Your environment, including your surroundings, what and who you are exposed to each day makes a huge difference to your brain’s ability to rewire effectively in recovery, so you need to ensure your environment is set up to stimulate your brain in the direction you need it to go in. I will say no more now though as I have written a separate post on this topic alone, so stay tuned as it will be published imminently!
5. Alertness & Attention
The brain needs to understand that the new things you are doing in recovery, or the new thoughts you want to wire in, are important. Therefore, you need to help your brain understand this by firstly making the active, conscious decision to make the changes you want and focus on why you are doing them. You should then further alert your brain to the new ‘learning’ and find ways to help it pay attention to what it is you are doing. When the brain is paying attention to the task and alert, it releases the chemicals epinephrine and acetylcholine, which prime the brain, ready to change (very important!).
To create this attention and alertness, you might use motivational techniques, which could be accountability to someone else or it could be some form of emotional motivation you can pull on. This will really help your brain pay attention to what you are doing and the fact this new pathway you are asking it to take matters.
6. Challenge, Discomfort & Effort
The more challenge, discomfort and effort you put to any new learning (e.g. recovery), the more neuroplasticity (rewiring) you get.
Changes to our neural connections (wiring between the brain cells) happen with challenge and exertion, as the brain learns best when things are hard at first and there is some resistance. If you have ever been told, ‘if recovery feels easy then you are not doing it right‘, they are correct. Rewiring (for anything) feels uncomfortable and can create agitation and frustration as the brain is being forced down unfamiliar paths. The more attention, challenge and effort you can put into your recovery, so it is mentally uncomfortable but still possible to pursue, the better your chances of creating those brain changes you want.
7. Repetition and Persistence
I think you knew this one was coming, but rewiring takes repetition, persistence and ongoing practice. As I wrote about in the post about what neuroplasticity is, the saying often quoted in recovery, ‘challenge, repeat’ exists for a reason.
You have to keep using the new pathways you are building in recovery or you will lose them again. To do something once does not embed it in your brain as a new habit. It needs active repetition and if you do stop pursuing those new neural pathways that you worked so hard to put in place, they will be lost.
There are no quick fixes with neuroplasticity and there are definitely no quick fixes when it comes to recovery. Consistency and time are the key things you need to be prepared for in recovery. You are unlikely to become an excellent driver in two days of learning, no matter how intensive the course, as your brain needs much longer than that to learn all the new skills and habits involved. The same goes for recovery.
You need to give yourself time to keep applying all the new behaviours and new thoughts repeatedly and as you do so, they will become more automatic on each repetition, until eventually they have wired in to become new habits but you will need to be consistent with your recovery approach and patient with yourself as this s**t takes time!
9. Transfer New Behaviours to Different Situations
It is all well and good if in recovery you get yourself to eat pizza again and you can do so repeatedly with little anxiety or unease. Excellent, well done. However, can you eat any pizza, in any location, at any time of day, with anyone? It is so important in the rewiring process that you take those new, awesome recovery behaviours that you are learning and transfer them to different situations and contexts.
Your brain has to learn these new abilities you have in recovery are not context dependent… they don’t only happen at ‘safe times’ or in one place, they can happen anytime and anywhere!
I was a little uneasy about adding this point in a post for people with eating disorders because I know some with ED’s can overload on water and hydration to a dangerous level. But, I figured, we are all adults here and you know what is applicable to you and your recovery and what isn’t, so you do what you have to do for you.
However, it is worth highlighting that the brain is made up of 70% water and so it works much more happily when we are adequately hydrated. Therefore, keep yourself hydrated, but not overloaded (please!) and remember, hydrating yourself can involve some yummy, nutrient dense drinks, it doesn’t have to be pure water (and in recovery liquids consumed should all be yummy and nutrient dense!).
So there you have it, 10 tips to help rewire your brain in eating disorder recovery. I hope at least one or two of them have given you some ideas for things that you can take forwards and use to make your recovery efforts a little more meaningful and likely to wire in harder and faster for you.
Let me know how it goes!